The majority of speakers in production today generally aim toward golden age ’50s, ’60s, and early-’70s tones—the perfect Greenback, G12 Alnico, or Chicago-made Jensen, for example. For this roundup, we check out six speakers that pivot from these cornerstones to do their own thing. Some seek to capture classic tones, but with updated performance and broader versatility, while others are just their makers’ best efforts at nailing a great-sounding guitar speaker by any definition.
All were tested in an oversized open-back, birch-ply Fargen 1x12 cabinet (by J. Design Cabs), and pummeled with a tweed Deluxe, a Friedman Runt 50, and a custom-built AC15-inspired head (each of which have both 8Ω and 16Ω outputs) using a Fender Telecaster and a Gibson Les Paul.
CELESTION NEO CREAMBACK
Neodymium has come a long way since early speakers made with this light and powerful rare-earth magnet were panned with epithets like “bright,” “cold,” and “brittle.” Celestion is confident enough of its wiles with the substance to have added it to its popular Cream-themed series as the Neo Creamback ($169 street), a U.K.-made 12" 60-watter available at 8Ω or 16Ω, with a 97dB efficiency rating (@ 1W/1M), which is in line with the Greenback tradition from which it stems. Of all these specs, though, its 4.2-lb weight is the one likely to inspire much of the excitement.
Celestion’s John Paice told us that the Neo’s voice was pitched somewhere between the G12M and G12H Creambacks, and I found that to be an accurate assessment. The speaker has a juicy underlying midrange hump that lends it to rock and roll, yet there’s a little more crispness and bark there than M-variants usually deliver. Kept clean, the Neo exhibited good clarity and an enjoyable quickness on the attack, with just a little hair to thicken things up. It had a tad less bass than an H, too, yet was easily on par with most Greenbacks. Hit hard, this medium-efficiency 60-watter segued into luscious grind, with a familiar texture that was entirely Celestion. I felt the speaker stood up well to the G12M Creamback and Alnico Cream alongside which I A/B’d it—which is to say, it was different, but not outwardly inferior. If you’re looking to retain a signature Celestion tone while dropping several pounds from your load, this tasty sounding speaker is definitely worth a try. celestion.com
ELECTRO-VOICE EVM 12L CLASSIC
On one hand, the EVM 12L needs no introduction. On the other, a surprising number of players have avoided giving this speaker a shot due to preconceptions that it’s purely a contemporary, heavy rock, high-output specialist. And it does all that with bells on, for sure (although I’m not sure how “contemporary” its origins are at this stage), but the EVM 12L Classic ($265 street) is a versatile and great-sounding speaker by any measure, and it can excel in many scenarios that might just surprise you. Okay, let’s admit up front that this entrant is kind of a ringer. Released in 2007 as EV’s update of the long-running 12L, it’s a well-established speaker with a reputation that doesn’t need defending. That said, we felt it worth considering in this roundup since—as outlined above—it is often misunderstood. Give it a shot, though, and it’s likely to suck you in. In fact, the EVM 12L Classic is a little like a great craft double IPA: once you develop a taste for, most of the competition sits a little lifeless on the palate.
I don’t really need to expend any verbiage on this driver’s abilities as a punchy, aggressive, yet impressively sweet-sounding lead machine when heaps of tube-generated distortion is applied, but it’s far from the “full range” speaker that it’s often billed as, and it delivers a rich, sultry character in its clean sound that is full, musical, and appealing without being harsh. But let’s look at an unexpected application: this speaker made my custom AC15-inspired 18-watter sound better than any other speaker in the roundup—sound more like itself, I’d say—belying the myth that you “have to drive a 12L hard” to make it sound any good. On the other side of the coin, this whopping 200-watter will also handle almost anything else you can throw at it. In short, while it has its own personality for sure, this speaker lets you hear your amp for itself, rather than slathering on a lot of extra speaker distortion, although sometimes that’s extremely cool. Yes, it’s heavy (19 lbs), sensitive (and therefore, loud), and not for everyone, but the 12L sounds fantastic, and if you haven’t tried one it’s likely to surprise the hell out of you. electrovoice.com
EMINENCE GEORGE ALESSANDRO SIGNATURE GA-SC 64
The “SC ” here stands for “Sound Circa,” as in 1964, and this relatively new Eminence Signature Series model is so named because, rather than aping any single specific model of the past, its design—courtesy of respected boutique-amp and high-end gear designer and manufacturer George Alessandro—seeks to capture the essence of the best American speakers from the golden age of blackface-driven guitar tone. Available in 8Ω and 16Ω versions, the GA-SC64 ($99 street) is a high-efficiency (100.5 dB) “upgraded vintage”-style speaker with a 32-ounce ceramic magnet, a paper voice-coil former, and a 40-watt power-handling capability.
I found the GA-SC64 a superb sounding and feeling speaker in all test configurations, for virtually all appropriate guitar styles. In general, the sonic touchpoints here are bountiful, firm lows (which are never boomy or overbearing); balanced mids, with a tasty pushed edge when hit hard; and silky, shimmering highs. The speaker is voiced with an appealing preponderance of warmth, yet it’s crisp and detailed within that rich core. The GA-SC64 made a great addition to the 5E3 Deluxe’s palette, extracting goodly twang with firmer lows and maximum upper-midrange clarity from the characteristic tweed granularity, while also proving surprisingly delectable and dynamic churning out the Friedman’s Brit-rock overdrive. From clean to mean, in front of all test amps, it simply kept giving up the goods. Robust, playable, and just plain “right sounding” in so many scenarios, the Eminence GA-SC64 is probably the most broadly appealing speaker at this price—or just about any for that matter—that I’ve played in a long while. eminence.com
KENDRICK GREEN FRAME
Even if its brighter color doesn’t entirely nail the original hue, the Green Frame ($149 direct) is Kendrick’s version of the classic 30-watt Celestion of the late ’60s. Its weight and power rating indicate that this 16Ω driver leans more toward G12H than G12M—both of which, in fact, wore the “Greenback” magnet covers in the day. In keeping with our roundup ethos, though, Kendrick adds a little fidelity and breadth to this American-made design, without sacrificing the vintage-voiced intentions.
Put through its paces in the aforementioned test rigs (I didn’t worry about volume or master levels on the 50-watter thanks to the speaker’s 80-watt rating), the Green Frame exuded that throaty “green” growl with a distinctive midrange push that helped the guitars punch forward, yet with the fatter low-end thump that made Hendrix and others fond of the vintage G12H variety in the first place. I find some contemporary H-types can be a little barky and nasal, but the Green Frame—while being decently articulate—had none of that, instead issuing a nicely rounded and well-textured tone that was clearly Celestion-based, but arguably more versatile than that often implies. It certainly works well for classic-rock in the genre’s gloriously broad spectrum, but can also add grunt to your tweed or blackface amp with equal aplomb. kendrick-amplifiers.com
TONE TUBBY PURPLE HAZE
California speaker maker Tone Tubby has revamped much of its lineup in recent years, and the relatively new Purple Haze model ($325 street) is a great example of the broader offerings that have helped to revitalize the name. This 40-watt speaker, available in 8Ω and 16Ω, uses Tone Tubby’s lightest hemp cone and a large 34-ounce alnico magnet. Combined, these ingredients are intended to produce a fast, detailed, and articulate response—which indeed they do—but the speaker has an enjoyably musical sweetness at its core, too, a characteristic that many attribute to the hemp cone itself. If we need to think in terms of familiar reference points, consider this an interesting blend of classic alnico-magnet Celestion and Jensen flavors, but there’s plenty else going on here, too.
The Purple Haze responded to chimey clean tones, snappy country picking, and light breakup with an immediacy that made every note pop, but with no unpleasant harshness once I’d dialed in each amp to suit its characteristics. Classic modded-Marshall-style overdrive from the Friedman barked with more of an in-your-face authority than you’d hear from softer vintage Celestion-style drivers—a result that would likely suit fast or aggressive playing styles, but might fight a little with others. Ultimately, the Purple Haze formula takes Tone Tubby somewhat toward JBL or perhaps Electro-Voice territory in its clarity and responsiveness, while retaining the forgiving aspects of the smoky hemp cone, making it an interesting alternative for players seeking to step out of the potentially tired old vintage-inspired molds. tonetubby.com
Over the past several years, Warehouse Guitar Speakers has won a lot of fans for its impressive, and impressively affordable, renditions of many classic speaker designs and original re-workings of old standards alike. The new ET90 ($79 street) follows suit, springing from the foundations of the Celestion G12-65 of the early ’80s, which was “tweaked” by WGS into the versatile ET65 model, only to be further upgraded into this robust yet stunningly accessible 90-watter. This speaker has a ceramic magnet and the larger voice-coil and dust cap of the more contemporary-voiced British drivers, and a high efficiency rating of 99.94dB. Rather than just giving the G12-65 platform a little more power handling, though, it is designed for a broader, more open character, with more headroom and firmer lows, yet a goodly dollop of that thick Celestion-like British grind that so many players still desire.
Short answer: the ET90 delivers big-time on its intentions. This is a likeable, high-powered British-ceramic alternative, and the fact that it sells for less than everything else here only adds to its appeal. The 90-watt rating didn’t choke the tweed Deluxe’s chewy, gritty, pushed-6V6 goodness one bit, while the ET90 stood up well as a single-speaker solution to the Friedman’s full 50 watts for both stout, rich, clean tones and textured Marshall-style leads. The ET90 displayed decent balance, no excessive frequency humps or harshness, and an appealingly British voice from every amp and guitar I tested it with. As such, it’s highly recommended as a pocket-friendly speaker upgrade for a broad range of rig scenarios. wgs4.com